Thoughts about New Orleans and Katrina

       The devastation in New Orleans stimulated all of our imaginations.  Almost instantly I wondered about the wisdom of rebuilding all of the old city.  Here are my conclusions mixed with the experiences and observations leading to them.

       My first experience with our “deep south” was attending a meeting in New Orleans in about 1960.  We stayed downtown and commuted to the Ochsner Clinic by streetcar.  Although I was brought up in Indianapolis, which happened to be the racially blackest northern city in America at that time, I was amazed by the spontaneous chitchat between strangers of opposite races while waiting for the streetcar.  It occurred to me that racial integration in our south might be easier than I had anticipated—perhaps childhood contact with sympathetic black nannies was not entirely erased by later indoctrination.  I also vividly remember seeing a ship in the Mississippi River looming over the streets like the elevated trains in Chicago.  Another only slightly less vivid memory: above ground graves in the New Orleans cemeteries said to be necessary because of flooding.  I didn’t see the logic but did not ask if they feared postmortem drowning interfering with resurrection.  So my New Orleans experience was very favorable except for the physical geometry of impending disaster (the looming ship).

       Skip over the next paragraph if you don’t need to hear the details of my experience in remote Asian regions.  Two years in Afghanistan from 1968-70 included considerable recreational travel in roadless but inhabited back country of Asia.  An almost universal observation: there were villages on hillsides, or mountainsides, and only cultivated land in the floodplains of rivers.  There was some terracing of steep fields, but the relatively level valleys were reserved for crops resulting in less labor for cultivation and no flooding of dwellings.  These travels in Afghanistan included villages west and north of Kabul, in Nuristan, and along 200 miles of the headwaters of the Panjir and Kokcha Rivers where the Arabs passed in the 9th century taking Islam to China.  In Nepal we walked 9 days in a loop through the mountains north of Katmandu including a 16,000 foot pass.  From a fellow passenger in the airplane en route to Nepal and the English teacher in our first village we compiled a list of most needed phrases in Nepalese like “Which path leads to…? (with the name of the next village dubbed in).  Nobody gave us a bum steer. Again all the backcountry villages were on the mountainsides.  On the last day, not quite back to the road, we happened on the first tea shop of our hike.  After drinking our tea, we didn’t succeed in getting more tea until we paid up, packed up, headed a few steps back where we had come from, and returned impersonating new arrivals.  We and the locals all laughed at the charade.

       Ever since Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf coast in 2005, I have been thinking about the best long term way to minimize, and ultimately eliminate, future flooding problems in the entire Mississippi River watershed. The past performance of levees and other engineering structures have provided only scant relief.  Obviously we cannot suddenly begin to stay out of trouble the way the primitive people of Asia have done.  So let us plan a long campaign with the first steps being:

1)    Permit no new construction in flood plains anywhere along the river and its major tributaries.

2)    Permit only minor repairs of flood damage during a few centuries of transition.

3)    Require that insurance payments for flood damage cover only replacement on higher ground.

4)    Encourage (or require) incorporated villages and cities to purchase conservation easements of undeveloped land on high ground sufficient to replace the at-risk structures in their jurisdictions.  Eminent domain could be invoked if needed to implement this option.

5)    As more and more of the floodplain of the entire watershed reverts to undeveloped status, put the avoided costs of maintaining levees and other flood prevention costs, no longer needed, into sinking funds to subsidize moving surviving undamaged structures from the flood zones to hasten the final goal, retaining almost all floods in the restored natural flood plains throughout the watershed.  An added advantage: temporarily retained flood waters upstream prolong the period of discharging it downstream.  This will reduce the height of all future flood crests.

       It will be best to plant the newly undeveloped floodplain with perennial crops that do not require harvest during a narrow window of time to prevent erosion of freshly cultivated areas during untimely floods.  Switchgrass or woody plants for biofuel production would serve this purpose very well indeed.

       Another point comes to mind; can we afford not to grow food on all that land?  Whether or not we need to grow biofuels to avoid trashing the planet with greenhouse gases and other pollution, we need to limit our population and for other reasons beside having the option of growing biofuels. The ayatollahs of Iran have already modified Shiite  Moslem teaching to permit modern birth control to be universally available in that country.  They have succeeded in limiting population growth before they could no longer feed themselves on locally grown foods.  Mankind is becoming one tribe.  Travel permits us to learn from each other and become cooperative friends.   

John A. Frantz, MD,  June 18, 2007